Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur after people have experienced trauma such as war, torture, disasters or sexual assault and symptoms can include anxiety, nightmares, intrusive memories, sleep and concentration difficulties, evasion of situations that remind people of the original trauma and feelings of shame. Treatment typically involves psychotherapy and drugs, usually ones for anxiety and depression. A recent study of 21 people - all of whom had tried a conventional mixture of drugs and psychotherapy - divided them into two groups. A control group took a placebo while the other group took a pharmacological version of MDMA (ecstasy). The participants carried on with their psychotherapy. Two months into the treatment 92% of the MDMA group showed a clinically significant improvement in their condition. They were more open to therapy and were able to 'process' their trauma. They felt less shame and were less dispirited, evasive and afraid. In contrast only 25% of the participants in the placebo group showed progress. Eventually everyone in this group was also offered treatment with MDMA and the results have been good with no serious or lasting side effects. None of the MDMA patients continued to take the drug after treatment. MDMA increases the levels of oxytocin in the brain, a hormone which stimulates emotions such as connection, proximity and trust, meaning that the participants were better able to open up and have confidence in their therapist. It also increases the activity in a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that processes fear, lowers stress and enables us to see events in perspective.
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